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The Institute for Coastal Science and Policy


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Divers study a German U-Boat sunk by American action during WWII that sits on the shoals south of Cape Hatteras, NC.

Scientists are able to decipher geological clues left on land that show how this area has changed with the rise and fall of sea level over literally hundreds of thousands of years.

“We know that 120,000 years ago, sea level covered the Albemarle and Pamlico. We also know that other sea-level rises caused wave traces as far inland as I-95 and beyond,” said Rummel.

Even in more recent times, the shoreline around the region has changed. The earliest maps of the area from the 16th century show significant differences in the inlet structure of the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds.

While evidence of sea-level rise exists, it is a hot topic amongst the scientific community today due to its close correlation with climate change. The institute is heavily involved with climate change research and policy and is uniquely positioned to study sea level as it is most noticeable in coastal regions.

According to Rummel, the sea is going to rise. All that is left to decide is how quickly it rises, and what we are going to do as a society to accommodate it.

“Sea level rise is part of the glacial cycle. We can make it worse with carbon dioxide and methane at the wrong time and the wrong place, but we probably can’t keep it from happening. We can try to mitigate it, but we are going to have to adapt, and to the extent that we fail to adapt we are probably going to suffer,” he said. “At the institute, we don’t sell suffering to people, we just point out that it is an option.”

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Social science and coastal policy examine politics and public policy, natural resource economics, coastal hazards, tourism, and demographic and social behaviors as they relate to coastal resources management.

ICSP research is used by state, local, and even the federal government, to develop public policy for the coasts. Tourism and economic development along the North Carolina coast is an area of great importance at the institute.

“One of the reasons that coastal areas are so threatened from an environmental standpoint, is that they make great places for people to go on vacation,” said Rummel. “And so not understanding the recreation component means you don’t understand the motivation of the people who are causing the trouble.”

To help with that understanding, the institute is partnering with faculty members from ECU’s Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies and ECU’s Center for Sustainable Tourism to research more sustainable ways for tourism to continue to thrive in the immensely popular Outer Banks.

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Housing development near Currituck Beach Lighthouse

The institute is also involved with public policy as it pertains to economic development (i.e., real estate) along the coasts. The development of the delicate environments along the coasts, if done improperly or too aggressively, can literally destroy both the ecosystems around them and the physical structures on which they rest. Barrier islands like the Outer Banks are insufficient land masses to sustain large human populations without significant hardening (concrete reinforcement seen extensively in European coastal areas) to combat erosion.

“North Carolina has a law against hardening coastal environments in large part because of the ecosystem services that natural coastal environments provide, and also because once you start to harden the coast then it becomes unsuitable for the kind of natural tourism that people so prize on the Outer and Inner Banks,” said Rummel.


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